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Friday 17 December 2010

The Christmas Movie Tradition

The Christmas movie is a big tradition in the USA. We get them over here, but they are often American films for that very same reason. Nevertheless, I grew up amid the excitement of new films being released on the cinema and plenty of old greats being shown over the holiday period. However, as I grew up I became more cynical about it all. There is an overwhelming side to Christmas that is enough to put you off the whole idea altogether. It is more than commercialism; rather it is a desire to be unashamedly tacky, sickly sweet, incredibly drunk and sanctimonious. People, particularly families, often become aggressive in their desires to “be together” or “enjoy themselves”. Therefore, it wasn’t long before I started to realize that most Christmas films, like most Christmas songs, are pretty awful. "Elf" has to be one of the most over-rated family films of all time and my high hopes were severely dashed with "Bad Santa". Most Christmas films are shown through the narrow eyes of North Americana and feel a desire to self-righteously show us “the true meaning of Christmas” via Santa Claus and miracles.

Below are my choices for the best feature films made with a Christmas theme. What constitutes a Christmas film you may ask? It is certainly a question I put to people when I name some of my choices. It seems to me that many people are either overly conservative or liberal in their selections. The conservative lot seem to regard only films that have Christmas in the title or feature Santa Claus or bang on about the holiday spirit to be the only movies to make the definition. Others refer to the huge expanse of films that are traditionally shown over the Christmas period on TV. I cannot remember a Christmas of my childhood that didn’t pass without “Superman”, “The Great Escape”, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or “Star Wars” being shown on TV.  So I take the middle line with my sometimes alternative and sometimes mainstream selection of Christmas movies.

“Gremlins” is the perfect anti-Christmas picture. I am shocked by the common reaction to most people I say Gremlins is one of my all-time favourite Christmas films. Most people don’t seem to consider it a Christmas movie. This is despite the fact it is set over the whole Christmas period, never stops referencing Christmas, has well-known Christmas songs on its soundtrack, has most scenes featuring snow or Christmas decorations and the whole story is based around the theme of the irresponsible giving of pets as Christmas novelties. “Gremlins” is savage in its comedy, sending up the consumerism and the excuses people use to go wild over the festive period. The Scrooge character, Mrs Deagal, gets no chance of redemption at the hands of these evil little green monsters that fire her straight out of her window after messing with her electric stair lift. The film is also laced with the bitter side of Christmas via Phoebe Cates’s Kate character who reminds us that the suicide rate goes up over this time of year and reveals a dark story of how she discovered there was no Santa Claus.

Again, the title doesn’t immediately evoke thoughts of Christmas, but it works so well as a winter holiday movie for the family. From the opening titles with its chirpy upbeat score following the shocking death of the film’s first victim via Jim Henson puppetry into the wonderful narration of Michael Hordern (perhaps one of the best voiceovers in cinematic and television history), the film just seems to hit all the right places for some Christmas escapist fun for all ages. Sherlock Holmes is synonymous with the Victorian era, perhaps the historical time most associated with Christmas. Young Sherlock Holmes is certainly a departure from the usual Sherlock Holmes affair, being an imaginative “What if Sherlock Holmes met Dr Watson at School?” story rather than an attempt to adapt any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Nevertheless, it provides all the usual fun and frolics of an Amblin film (the production company that brought you Gremlins) and a Chris Columbus (first two cosy Harry Potters) script.

The Muppet’s Christmas Carol

Sadly Jim Henson had passed away by the time this film was produced but it did his memory proud. This is perhaps the best Muppet movie made and also one of the best adaptations of Charles Dickens’s famous story. Of course, despite a peculiar creepiness that I have always felt was present with the Muppets, this picture largely diminishes the sense of ominous threat that was present in all adaptations prior to this one. However, it more than makes up for it with an excellent performance by Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, some brilliant songs and the general wacky genius that makes the Muppets so enjoyable to watch. 

Scrooge – A Christmas Carol (1951)

This is the standard that all adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” were and still are judged. Despite being a flop at the cinema in the US it quickly became a TV favourite in the 1960s. It is as much a tradition in many households as Christmas trees and decorations. Alistair Sim made the role of Ebenezer Scrooge his own, so much so that a good number of actors who took on the role afterwards seem to be inadvertently imitating him. This was later reinforced when Sim leant his distinctive voice to the character of Scrooge again in the 1971 Oscar winning animated adaptation. Michael Hordern also reprised his role of Jacob Marley/Marley’s Ghost. Hordern seems to regularly crop up in many of my Christmas choices. Here he is as intimidating as any villainous sidekick when playing the living Marley and darkly oppressive when he plays the spectral harbinger of doom. The film changes only a little of Dickens’s story, but it is a welcome addition, helping to better explain how Scrooge and Marley emerged through greed and cold-hearted opportunism. There is also a believable performance by George Cole as the young Scrooge. He doesn’t physically resemble Sim much, but his interpretation of the character is spot on.  

The Nightmare Before Christmas

It’s amazing to think that this stop-motion animated film was originally released over Halloween. Now the Christmas angle just seems to have eclipsed the whole concept that the main characters come from Halloween Town. This was the film that Disney apparently wanted Tim Burton to make and even financed his pet project “Ed Wood” into the deal. It is full of great songs and really establishes the Burton look of child-like Gothic. However, not nearly enough credit is given to the film’s actual director, Henry Selick. It is arguable that although Burton wrote and produced the picture, the stylization of it is as much Selick’s. For proof of this see “James and the Giant Peach” and 2009’s darkly wondrous “Coraline”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” still seems edgy and there is easily enough on offer to satisfy the adults in the family as well as the children.


Several of the Rocky films (Rocky, Rocky IV, Rocky V and Rocky Balboa) are based around the Christmas period and heavily reference it. I don’t know if it is a Philadelphia thing or Stallone was playing with the idea of miracles, but it works. Rocky IV, the campiest and most financially successful of the whole series, even stages the final scene, Rocky’s match, on Christmas Day in snowy Russia. However, the first film, which is stands alone as a true cinematic classic, delivers exactly the right type of Christmas tale Americans audiences love. The final scene and match in this instance happens on New Year’s Day, and the fact that Rocky doesn’t win makes it all the more poetic.

Trading Places

Christmas is a time for fairy tales. Disney knows this and so do the traditional British pantomimes. So how about an adult rendition of the Prince and the Pauper? Set over the Christmas period, the film is layered with enough examples of Dickensian themes: gaps between the classes and the juxtaposition of 1980s greed (it was made in 1983) with “salt of the earth” compassion. Actors/comedians Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy not to mention director, John Landis, are at the top of their game in this picture. There is also memorable supporting performances put in by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the villainous US aristocrats, Mortimer and Randolph Duke and Denholm Elliott is wonderful as the ever-loyal Coleman. However, the star of the show is undeniably Jamie Lee Curtis. I have worked with Ms Curtis on the film “Fierce Creatures” and there is little getting away from her larger than life personality, which makes most of her performances memorable. Before this picture she seemingly typecast as a scream queen. Here she played the best “tart with a heart” caricature ever seen on the silver screen. The humour comes thick and fast without descending into semi-spoof territory and the film’s ending is fulfilling in a 1980s sort of way without becoming too cheesy.

Life of Brian

This is one of the best comedies ever written and will make that list for sure. Hell, if they can put “Jesus Christ Superstar” on over a festive season, when it is technically more of an Easter musical, I can have the pinnacle of Monty Python’s greatness. The film begins with the birth of Christ and his next door neighbour, Brian. Okay, we all know that 25th December date was stolen from other pre-Christian religious festivities, so this is the only film that remarks on the nativity without featuring the celebration that now surrounds it. If most films that centre on the life of Jesus focus on spirituality then this is a wonderful counterbalance that sends up humanity as a whole and revels in all its ageless mortal flaws.


This film seeps class. It is considered by many to be one of the funniest comedies ever made, it won John Gielgud, in one of his most memorable roles, an Oscar for best supporting actor and it features a collaborative theme song that is a mainstay on many easy listening radio channels. Like “Trading Places” it deals with the 1980s US aristocracy and contrasts it with the working classes. Much of the story is set over the Christmas period and Arthur’s perpetual drunkenness helps to remind us of another less savoury tradition of the holiday period.

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